The Original Conference Call

A century ago, TCU fought to play in the Southwest Conference. With the Big 12, they won their way in.

The Original Conference Call

The 1914 TCU football team returned to the Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association (TIAA) play after sitting out the 1913 conference season. it was banned after the 1912 team was found to have used ineligible players.

The Original Conference Call

A century ago, TCU fought to play in the Southwest Conference. With the Big 12, they won their way in.

The truth is, TCU begged to get in the Southwest Conference.

The Horned Frogs had been playing organized football since 1896, nearly as long as anyone in the state, going back to the Waco days when the school was called Add-Ran Male and Female College.

By 1912, TCU had settled in Fort Worth and developed a fine program with a winning tradition and a student body passionate about the game. The small private school had started to beat some of the big boys — Baylor, Texas and Texas A&M — posting a program-best 8-1 record that year. But two years later, when the Southwest Conference was dreamed up at the Oriental Hotel in Dallas in the spring of 1914, the Frogs were not invited.

Neither was TCU included six months later on Dec. 8 when the league became an official entity at the Rice Hotel in Houston. The Owls, which had started playing football only two years before, were somehow in. So too was hated Baylor, that former cross-town rival who wasn’t going to do any favors for the Fort Worth school. The Aggies, Sooners, Razorbacks, even Oklahoma A&M and Southwestern University were invited. And, of course, behind it all was Texas University.

Eight schools. Three states. But no room for the Horned Frogs. The ringleader was Longhorn athletics director L. Theo Bellmont, who schemed the idea of a new Texas-based association to match the Ivy League and Big Ten Conference, both of which were into their second decade, not to mention rumors of a league forming out west among the Pacific Coast schools.

Even then, Texas wanted to run things. In addition to the eight, Bellmont wanted to include Louisiana State and Mississippi, but the schools declined.

Thus began the saga of the Southwest Conference — a story that reads eerily familiar to the unstable, exclusionary and often secretive landscape that college athletics is today.

The league began play in autumn 1915. Meanwhile, TCU remained uninvited and was left to toil in the Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association, a league the Frogs helped charter six years earlier in 1909 with Austin College and Trinity University, plus some of the schools that would later desert them: Texas, A&M, Baylor and Southwestern.

TCU had led an effort to bring order to college football in Texas to match the rules being played up north. TCU even provided the association’s first president — professor O.W. Long.

The TIAA worked well. Teams could count on a fair schedule full of regional games, and smaller colleges had the chance to play the state universities. But problems arose quickly — state schools, with their larger crowds and bigger stadiums, began to insist on all home games and refused to play the smaller schools.

TCU was among them and found itself at a disadvantage. It no longer had a cross-town rival and its new city didn’t yet have the appetite to support the hometown team. It hadn’t even managed to retain a coach for more than two consecutive seasons. Worse, its make-shift stadium, the TCU Athletic Field, was just a vacant patch of Johnson grass bounded by a wood grandstand. It only seated 4,000.

At the end of the 1912 season, it had come to light that the team had used two ineligible players, both transfers who did not sit out the prior season. Only the coach, W.T. Stewart, and the two players knew of the transgression, but the TIAA came down hard on the Frogs, banning them from league play for 1913. It was all the other schools needed to exclude the Frogs the next spring when the seeds of the SWC were sown.

TCU kept making its case. In 1920, they finished the regular season 9-0 — just one of three undefeated teams in the country — and TIAA champions for the first time. Thanks to Coach W.L. Driver’s connections, TCU was invited to play in a new postseason game called the Fort Worth Classic, later called the Dixie Classic, the forerunner to the Cotton Bowl.

The Frogs lost in humiliating fashion, 63-7, to Centre College, but it became a point of pride to play in the only postseason game outside the Rose Bowl. No Texas team had been to a bowl game before.

Finally, after the 1922 season, TCU hired the young, enthusiastic Madison “Matty” Bell, who helped convince the SWC to admit the Frogs.

The league could deny them no longer, but only if TCU would build a stadium.

The Frogs began SWC play in 1923, and the 20,000-seat Clark Field was erected the following season. Six years after that, Bell’s successor Francis Schmidt guided the 1929 Frogs to the first SWC championship and a 9-0-1 record.

With Fort Worth finally falling in love with the Horned Frogs, it was time to build a big-time stadium. In 1930, TCU Stadium (renamed for Amon G. Carter in 1955) hosted its first game.

Over the next two decades, Leo “Dutch” Meyer ’22 and Othol “Abe” Martin led TCU to national prominence, including national championships in 1935 and 1938. By the 1950s, the Frogs regularly held braggin’ rights over their fellow Texas schools, which often were also among the nation’s best. In all, TCU won four SWC titles that decade, tied with Texas for the most.

After that, fortunes changed. The Frogs would bumble their way through 19 losing seasons, from 1960 to 1982, under six different coaches.

After Abe Martin retired in 1966, we really “dropped off the cliff,” remembers Chancellor Emeritus William E. Tucker ’56, who led the university from 1979 to 1998. Tucker arrived during a difficult stretch in university history — not just in football. The school was struggling to maintain enrollment and its endowment was a mere $53 million. Supporting football was getting increasingly expensive, and Tucker had the challenge of keeping it relevant while raising the academic profile of the school and growing the endowment. At the end of his tenure, he had to steer the school through the breakup of the SWC in the mid-1990s.

Ironically, TCU found itself in the same situation it faced earlier in the century — on the outs.

So TCU designed a new road map for success. It brokered itself into the 16-team, four-time zone Western Athletic Conference. But its new conference was not ideal. Sixteen schools were too many and too far apart. TCU figured its best chance for success was to become the top team in the WAC and get as much media attention as possible. “We should be able to compete for championships in almost every sport from the get-go,” former Athletics Director Frank Windegger said at the time.

To achieve that, the university needed to make a stronger financial commitment. In 1997, it hired up-and-coming administrator Eric Hyman to replace Windegger. Hyman knew TCU needed to build and modernize, but mostly, it needed to start winning. He called his plan Operation Leap Frog, a blueprint for growth that the department continues to use.

In November 1998, the Board of Trustees approved an $8 million package to make TCU “a nationally prominent athletics program.” A slew of facilities were constructed as TCU worked to reverse perceptions. At the time, TCU football had suffered 30 losing seasons in 38 years.

The SWC was gone, and little-known teams from out west were traveling to Fort Worth without their fans. With a sparsely filled stadium, lesser known opponents and a downtrodden home team, Frog fans stayed away, disappointed one too many times.

In the meantime, fans had found other outlets: The Cowboys arrived in the 1960s, the Rangers in the 1970s, the Mavericks in the 1980s and the Stars in the 1990s. Sometimes TCU was lucky to have its score mentioned at the end of a newscast.

“The truth is we lost a generation of fans because the product on the field was so bad,” Hyman said from his office at the University of South Carolina, where he has served as athletics director since 2004. “When we started carrying out our plan, we knew the team wouldn’t be coming back right away. But we were going to work to get them back.”

It kicked off in 1998 with the hiring of silver-haired, smooth-talking Dennis Franchione. In his first season, Coach Fran directed the Frogs to a 6-5 record and a serendipitous Sun Bowl appearance, which it won over USC, kick-starting today’s golden age.

Finally, in 2000, the fan base responded. Based largely on a preseason ranking for the first time in decades and an ambitious Heisman Trophy marketing campaign for running back LaDainian Tomlinson ’05, TCU set a record for season ticket sales of 13,802. The Frogs averaged 31,620 in the stands for the season, the first time over 30,000 since the Southwest Conference Era ended. The team reached No. 9 in the rankings before losing a road game in November, but still played in a third straight bowl and finished in the Top 25. Six weeks later, Coach Fran bolted for Alabama. Season ticket sales would fall 11 percent, but TCU spirits tumbled even farther.

“TCU people were so hungry for success when Fran was here that they gave their whole soul to him,” Hyman recalled. “And then when he left, people were hurt, and we lost some support. Now, TCU has built that back and has built an infrastructure to stand the test of time no matter who the coach is, although you currently have one of the absolute best.”

That would be Gary Patterson, who came with Franchione from New Mexico as defensive coordinator. Despite losing 28 seniors (including Heisman Trophy finalist Tomlinson), Patterson coached the 2001 Frogs to a 6-5 record in TCU’s first season in Conference USA, another conference upgrade.

Another boost would come four years later when the Frogs joined the Mountain West, a league they won four out of seven years.

“Each move was another step up for the program and the university,” Louden said. “The challenges kept getting greater and the competition kept increasing. It brought out the best in all of us. I think the Big 12 will too.”

Now completing his 11th season as head man of TCU football, Patterson has taken the Frogs to the BCS’s Fiesta and Rose bowls and eight double-digit-win seasons, and stands on the verge of tying Meyer’s 109 wins for most in school history.

The Big 12 seems like a reward for the odyssey for some, but not for Patterson.

“It was a challenge winning the Rose Bowl, and there’s been a lot of people who told us we couldn’t do a lot of things,” he said at the press conference. “So we are going to take it one step at a time. It’s not going to be easy, but I do believe that if  the Big 12 didn’t think we could be competitive, they wouldn’t have asked us. We belong.”

Related stories:
Home conference home – From SWC castoff, through five leagues in 17 years, to BCS credibility, and, finally, into the Big 12
The original conference call – A century ago TCU fought to play in the Southwest Conference. With the Big 12, they won their way in.
Dancing in Sundance Square – Fort Worth city leaders are over the moon with excitement about the hometown Frogs’ move to the Big 12.

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